July 24, 2008
Malibu tango on Carbon Beach
It's also not a secret that they don't.
So, the battle between some small-hearted residents and the determined beach-going public persists, with all sorts of cross accusations and bad feelings.
I'd blocked all of that from my mind on a recent weekend afternoon, when I dragged my reluctant 13-year-old daughter to a dance performance by CalArts' dance program dean Stephan Koplowitz's Taskforce company. I was thinking only of respite from the urban summer and the chance to see work by an artist whom I'd only followed from afar. Koplowitz's choreography has been performed in public spaces all over the world, but this was his first foray in Los Angeles.
Never mind the horrific PCH traffic that made us more than 20 minutes late; never mind the lack of parking; we arrived finally at the designated site, a beautiful narrow stretch of beach reachable only by a relatively new public easement called Carbon Beach Coastal Access Point, located near 22126 Pacific Coast Highway. It's a mini-alleyway between some major residences, and on this spectacular day, when the nearby Santa Monica beaches with easier access were packed, this one was barely being used. Save for our two dozen or so dance enthusiasts and the resident walkers -- fast walkers -- clearly native Malibuians.
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Rachel and I joined our group just at the conclusion of an introduction to public beach rights by Jenny Price, a Venice Beach-based author, environmental historian and expert in Los Angeles' public waterways. Price had been invited as a collaborator in the project by Koplowitz and was explaining where nonresidents can and can't walk on the sand (safest to stay on the wet part) and how public easements are determined. We could barely hear her over the noise of blasting rap music that filled the air from competing neighborhood drunken parties. But as she spoke to our very law-abiding group, one of the partyers, clearly inebriated and in a very bad mood, came over to break up our fun.
"Go back to the Valley!" he screamed, as if that were the worst punishment he could imagine. "You don't belong here," and then he added some far more unpleasant accusations and name-calling. Price ignored him and continued on with her talk.
Part of what she told us was that each time a beachfront residence is expanded, a little bit more oceanfront sand has to be made public. So if you have a resource guide, available through a group called Los Angeles Urban Rangers, you can figure out how to set yourself up for a nice beach day, lawfully.
If you can stand the neighbors.
Still, on this day neither Price's talk nor the bullying were the main attraction. Quickly, they became backdrops for what turned out to be a bit of magic.
Koplowitz, who has devoted his career to using dance to transform how we see the world around us, was in the midst of presenting a full week of free programs at water-side sites throughout L.A. With the eye of a New Yorker, these new works pointed us to look beyond the obvious Los Angeles landmarks to experience a fundamental determinant for the region's character -- how we use, share, experience and get our water. Among the sites his dancers performed at were the downtown Watercourt at California Plaza, the Port of Los Angeles and several stops along the L.A. River.
On this day, his eight-member Taskforce dance troupe -- extremely beautiful, athletic young performers -- had the "task" of "taking back the beach." Through what he calls "structured improvisational dance" that encompasses both classical form and playful everyday posturing, the dancers acted out reading, sandcastle-building, playing ball, swimming and hanging out, all on newly public easements that only recently have been restored as public lands.
The performance flew by and ended with the dancers playing in the ocean. And as they performed, the day's tension and hostilities dissipated. The walkers stopped; the partyers set down their drinks and stood rapt on the edge of their decks to watch. Though the rap music thundered on, time stopped. Everyone was enchanted, and for those few moments, we were as one.
A couple of strollers stopped next to Rachel and asked her what it was all about. Briefly, she stopped pretending to be a bored teen and explained that these dancers had come here as part of an art piece. As she talked, I could tell she'd taken to heart the politics of the moment and also the cultural significance of all that was happening.
And as they talked, I thought of how art can be a healing force. How music can calm. A painting can transport. A good book can distract us from our troubles. And an extraordinary piece of dance, like Koplowitz's clean, structured yet interwoven narrative work, can sear through an angry crowd. How a shared experience of beauty can diffuse tempers.
Koplowitz, for a moment, achieved a truce by making the beachgoers, all of us, his audience. And the site became his stage -- it was no longer theirs, ours or none of the above.
For more information about Steve Koplowitz and Task Force, go to: www.koplowitzprojects.com/taskforce